The University of Miami welcomes renowned photojournalist and documentarian Susan Meiselas as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow and 100 Talent.
By Andrew Boryga
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (February 10, 2016)— Susan Meiselas has traveled the world as a documentary photographer for over 40 years.
Her photography has transported people to the rubble and destruction of lower Manhattan on 9/11, to Nicaragua’s popular insurrection during the late 1970s, to a village in El Salvador destroyed by the country’s armed forces in the early 1980s, and to witness the photographic history of Kurdistan, which was presented in book and exhibition form in 1997.
Meiselas said she believes documentary photography is “an engagement with the world.” Now she will share that engagement, her experience, and her talent with the University of Miami community as one of its 100 Talents, one of the University’s Roadmap to Our New Century initiatives,introduced by President Julio Frenk.
As a Distinguished Presidential Fellow with the College of Arts and Sciences, Meiselas is actively engaging and interacting with students and collaborating with faculty across multiple disciplines. Her visit will culminate in a public lecture at the Newman Alumni Center on March 21.
So far, Meiselas’s time on campus has found her in photography and sculpture classrooms in the College’s art department, where she has shared her expertise on topics such as the history of war photography and how to make a living as an artist.
Meiselas said she hopes to help inspire photography students by answering questions and sharing her own experiences. But above all, she hopes to encourage them to get out, take risks, and not be afraid to make mistakes, while moving from skills training to working on their own in-depth projects.
“You only truly learn by doing it yourself,” she said.
The challenge for photographers, she added, is to help viewers of their work become engaged with people and issues that may be foreign to them.
To welcome Meiselas to campus, the College and the School of Communication hosted a special screening of her 1991 documentary Pictures from a Revolution, which features the photographs Meiselas took during the Nicaraguan popular insurrection and follows her search a decade later to find and hear from the people in the photos.
Seventy-one of those photos were published in her hardcover book, “Nicaragua June ’78—July ’79,” which was published before she returned to the country and co-produced and directed the documentary with Alfred Guzzetti and Dick Rogers.
“It all begins with the photo and the relationships with the collaborators with whom the film is created. Filmmaking includes more collaborators, where photography is more of an isolated experience,” Meiselas told the nearly 100 students, faculty, staff and community members who attended the screening.
Her photos captured the fall of the Somoza regime and the revolution subsequently won by the Sandinistas in 1979. Since the images represent the various factions and lives of people who participated in the revolution in and out of battle, Meiselas wondered how they fared post-revolution. The film tells the story of those she could find, with Meiselas showing them their photo and asking about their lives since.
After the screening, Meiselas, Tom Lopez, professor of art and art history, and Bill Rothman, professor of cinema and interactive media, had a lively discussion about her process. “The film was constrained by trying to find only the people in the photos of the book,” said Meiselas.
This fall, Aperture re-issued the book to coincide with the 40th anniversary of her first trip to Nicaragua in 1978. The third release includes an augmented reality (AR) function, “Look and Listen” app which allows the reader to experience some of the images via two-to-four minute clips from Pictures from a Revolution as she returns to the same locations with the people she photographed. The AR app will be shared when she explores her work in professor Kim Grenfeder’s interactive class at the School of Communications in March.
What other activities Meiselas will be involved with is still evolving, but she plans to continue to engage students and faculty across departments in the hope that some of her experiences can complement their studies.
Miami has not been a subject for Meiselas; most of her previous encounters with the city have been traveling through it to get to destinations throughout Latin America.
However, Meiselas said she is honored to be joining the University of Miami and is excited to dig deeper into the “multiplicity of lives” that she said Miami’s vibrant immigrant community cultivates.
Meiselas got her own start while teaching photography in an elementary school in the South Bronx during the 1970s. During that period, she became intrigued by a traveling “Girl Show” and the women who performed a striptease at small town carnivals and fairs in the Northeast. For three years during her summer breaks, Meiselas followed the women and the men they performed for from town to town. Her photographs evolved into her first book, Carnival Strippers, with images and stories she recorded at that time.
Her work has been published in The New York Times and Time Magazine, and she has had solo exhibitions in Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, London, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. She is a winner of the Robert Capa Gold Medal and in 1992 was named a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. Her work is included in American and international collections.
Alexandra Bassil contributed to this report.